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Friday, October 14, 2005

Open-Book vs. Closed-Book

A question to profs and students:  Should exams be open-book or closed-book?  There are probably cognitive and pedagogical studies out there about the different effects of each policy.  But most profs I know make the decision based on intuitions or value judgments about the best way to go.  A closed-book exam is seen as "old school" and more rigorous.  An open-book exam is seen as more student-friendly and modern.  Open-book proponents point out that in law practice, the "exams" are all open-book, and a closed-book exam is therefore unrealistic.  Closed-book proponents note that the bar exam is closed-book, and if students fail that then all else is a moot point.  Some professors have a policy somewhere in between: they allow only the textbook, or only a one- or two- or five-page outline, or they prohibit commercial outlines.  It's tough to police any sort of "no commercial outlines" policy, however, since outlines can now be printed off a computer and made to look like the student's own materials.

There are a lot of different permutations to exam policies, and lots of different justifications.  Which do you favor and why?

Posted by Matt Bodie on October 14, 2005 at 09:34 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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I allow my property students to bring anything, including commercial outlines, into the exam. I explain that I'm not doing them any favors by making the test open book, and that because of time pressure, they won't have time to look everything up. I recognize the bar exam point, and give time-pressured exams to help build test taking skills. I'd just rather have my first-year students spending their time understanding concepts than trying to memorize everything. Having an outline (commercial or otherwise) in the exam isn't going to help a student if the student doesn't understand the concepts in the outline.

Posted by: Ben Barros | Oct 14, 2005 9:44:38 AM

Open book, for two reasons. First, the practice of law is open book. Second, the goal of study of law is understanding concepts, not memorizing.

Posted by: Prof. Karl | Oct 14, 2005 9:45:29 AM

From a student's perspective, it seems to me that it really depends on how the professor chooses to present the material. In my Crim class, for example, the focus is on memorizing things for the most part. Here, a closed-book exam would seem to be more appropriate. But my Civil Procedure class is almost completely policy oriented. An open-book exam probably wouldn't make the exam any less difficult for this class. So I think the professor's own intuition, as you put it, is probably as accurate a guide as there is, given the many different ways he/she could choose to teach the class.

Posted by: a callow 1L | Oct 14, 2005 9:55:58 AM

I've never really understood this debate -- it's not like students really sit around looking at their hornbook during a test (if they do, they are definitely in trouble).

The more relevant question is whether to use lap-top blocking software like they do on the bar exam for people taking it on a computer. It seems to me that a real problem is that students can pre-write answers (or rather parts of answers) to questions and then just cut and paste them into exams. Things like "the standard for ____ was laid out in ___. The four parts of the test are 1, 2, 3, 4" On an open book exam, I don't even think this is against the rules....

Posted by: BuddingProf | Oct 14, 2005 11:54:11 AM

The open-book closed-book debate really does make a difference, especially for students who have trouble remembering case names, etc.

Personally, I prefer my exams to be open-book, but I like the signalling effect of being "old-school". My Land Use exam, which was a blast, has been my only closed-book exam so far. Professor Ellickson claims that this policy encourages the students to study more carefully throughout the semester since they have no safety net, but since I missed the beginning-of-the-semester announcement it didn't change my own behavior.

Posted by: Will Baude | Oct 14, 2005 12:39:19 PM

As a litigator, I think the open book, 5 to 8 hour exam with multi-part questions is the ideal. This pretty closely simulates a level of time pressure under which students will have to operate from time to time in practice.

The old model of the frenetically scribbled two-hour closed-book exam made up of a series of issue-spotters is severely artificial. It may approximate the bar exam, but not the practice of law. It only really makes sense at schools that devote a great deal of attention to bar prep.

Another defect of the old-school exam is that it is physically difficult, indeed painful, for those of us with slow, crabbed handwriting. This is an unrealistic feature (real lawyers never handwrite anything) that further diminishes the exam's supposed value as a gauge of preparation for practice.

Posted by: Plainsman | Oct 14, 2005 1:16:19 PM

And yes, I'll come clean, I almost invariably got better grades in law school on open-book exams, typed exams, and longer exams.

Posted by: Plainsman | Oct 14, 2005 1:18:03 PM

The real question should be, take home, or in class examinations?

As other comments have noted, an in-class, 3 or 4 hour examination usually puts students under sufficient time pressure that they can't really use their commercial outlines. However, I've found that students (especially 1Ls) do use -- and simply rewrite in their essay responses -- outlines that they or their classmates have prepared for the class. The problem with that is that the students fill up pages with outlining the black-letter "law of ___", even if only a small portion of that law applies to the question posed. Based on my desire to encourage students NOT to do this (because they won't get any points for it) and instead to focus on the "A" part of "IRAC", I have begun to make my scheduled 3-hour examinations closed book.

But in non-core courses (e.g., Sports Law), where there is less of a "body" of "black letter" law, I've found the 8 hour take-home (pick it up at 9 am and return in at 5 pm) (with strict page limitations). The downside is that this kind of exam may allow a student who hasn't been as dedicated over the course of a semester to show up a student who has been more diligent using superior writing skills. I try to check that possible incentive to slack by calling on a lot of students on a random and unscheduled basis over the course of the term.

Posted by: Geoff Rapp | Oct 14, 2005 1:28:41 PM

As a recent graduate and recent bar examinee, I would say that in law school, exams should probably be open book, but with more rigorous grading attention paid to the A in IRAC, after all that is where lawyers get paid to do what we do.

The rationale is to base exams like actual law practice. I like the idea that Geoff Rapp posited, i.e. the take-home exam. A multi-part exam of sufficient length that focused on analyzing a scenario such that the student will spend most of their 8 hours working on it simulates a number of different things. First, they would get a better idea of the time pressures facing practicing attorneys. Second, they would be better at determining what are the best resources for finding answers. Third, issues related to writing ability and organziation can be graded as well. Presentation matters in the real world.

The issues of a law school exam preparing a student for taking the bar are a red-herring. Any student taking a bar prep class will spend hours and hours drilling on how to take the essay portions of the bar exam during bar prep. There is no need to make students go through three or four years of the same thing.

Posted by: Matt Johnston | Oct 14, 2005 2:19:46 PM

I think I disagree with Matt on whether bar prep is enough for all students. Test taking is a skill that can be learned. At lower-tier schools, many students are bright but poor test takers. For them, the practice in law school is essential for the bar.

Of course, as I tell my students, if the bar was abolished, I'd give take home exams, which more accurately mirror law practice.

Posted by: Ben Barros | Oct 14, 2005 2:48:34 PM

I believe what Ben said about students in the "lower-tier" schools. I am one such student, and most of my fellow students were quite bright but were horrible test takers.
The policy at my school was "closed book" only. The thought being that this forced students to prepare more diligently, and combined with a brutal first and second year dismissal rate, that this would ensure that only the "best" would earn a degree.

Posted by: sebastianguy99 | Oct 14, 2005 7:01:49 PM

As a law student in Australia, I am not so familiar with US exam practices. However, our exams are all open book, with no restrictions on materials. Yes, that means we have 'the four elements of the test are 1, 2, 3, 4' as BuddingProf points out.

However, surely that is not the point. Our exams are set out mostly in hypothetical format, so that a 1-1.5 page prose piece is presented with a series of facts. The question at the end is usually 'Advise so-and-so'. As I say, not sure if this is how the US tends to assess.

This means that we are assessed on our ability to apply the facts given in the scenario to the law itself. So, we have the elements of the test, but need to say, element 1 is satisfied because Johnny knew at the time that X fact existed, which according to Justice XYZ in 'case name' etc etc. This application of fact to the elements of the tests seems to be a perfect fit.

Having your own summary notes pre-typed is great, because it allows one to go through the logical steps in establishing, say, a crime, or fradulent property transaction, or unconstitutional legislation etc.

It seems a perfect fit to me, anyway!!

Posted by: not my real name | Oct 15, 2005 7:02:28 AM

Is BuddingProf's question really a question? Is there any school around that allows you to take an exam on a computer without blocking software?

On the exam I just took, it was open *everything*, though it should be noted that this isn't a course that has commercial outlines, hornbooks, or anything like that available, so open anything pretty much means "book and notes." Still, I only found myself looking at the book for one question, and that was a quick multiple-choice question that's probably something like 2% of the exam, and on which I just blanked.

In Contracts, the exams, which are entirely multiple-choice, are open-UCC-with-annotations.

Posted by: Jason | Oct 19, 2005 7:25:48 PM

very good

Posted by: hariom | Jan 5, 2015 3:29:41 AM

I echo Ben Barros's comments. Indeed, I give multiple choice questions in part because I think it's good bar practice.

I've never quite understood the "pre-writing" concern, though (I use a takehome in one class). You can spot a prewritten section (or other outline dump) a mile away.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Jan 6, 2015 11:12:50 AM

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